Er – like, you know, they’re only words.

On becoming a civil servant in the mid 70s, I found myself in the thrall of what could be called ‘civil service, or Mandarin, English’. That is, writing English as if you were an Oxbridge graduate, never using a single syllable word, when you could find one with at least three. The use of this style extended to the internal memos, which preceded e-mail, and especially those memos sent by senior management and those of us with a pretension to higher things. It took John Major’s Citizens Charter and the promotion of ‘simple English’ within the public sector to bring about a significant change in the attitude and style of correspondence within the public sector.

Education, Education, Education, was the mantra of New Labour in 1997. However, 13 years post New Labour’s mantra and some 20 years post the Tories Citizens Charter, it seems that instead of a nation educated and proficient in the use of ‘simple English’, we are now a nation of ‘English simpletons’. Benedict Brogan’s article in The Telegraph adds to this view. Brogan writes that senior civil servants say that the standard of written submissions from officials who entered Whitehall in the past 10 years is surprisingly poor. These senior civil servants find themselves correcting spelling, fixing grammar, and re-writing documents to make them intelligible. One minister told Brogan that this may be due to the enforced informality of the Blair years, when Labour tried to replace perceived stuffiness with more vernacular language.

Vernacular or Vague? Probably both! That some 40 years of ‘modern education’ should result in a nation of illiterates is the albatross hanging around the neck of generations other than mine, though my generation and that before me, should own up to being the most complicit in bringing it about. Whether or not this state of affairs extends to all nations where English is the mother tongue, I don’t know.

Vagueness is on the march and it isn’t just formal education that has brought this about, firstly television, then the Internet, and now mobile phone texting, all impact on both the written and the spoken word. In a City Journal article with the sub title The decline and fall of American English, and stuff, the author recounts how a woman appearing on a television programme described a baby squirrel that she had found in her yard.

“And he was like, you know, ‘Helloooo, what Helloooolooking at?’ and stuff, and I’m like, you know, ‘Can I, like, pick you up?,’ and he goes, like, ‘Brrrp brrrp brrrpBrrrpbrrrpbrrrpike, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’ ” .

Apparently she rambled on, speaking in self-quotations, sound effects, and other vocabulary substitutes, punctuating her sentences with facial tics and lateral eye shifts. He adds that by 1987, “like” was no longer a mere slang usage, it had mutated from a hip preposition. Linguistic rabble had stormed the grammar palace. The principles of effective speech had gone up in flames. And with it, presumably, the written word.

Quo Vadis? I noticed that that Brogan concluded his article in The Telegraph with an “Ahem”, and perhaps I’m reading to much into this by connecting it with Molesworth and St Custards. While I don’t advocate a return to the teaching of classical languages in school, as at St Custards, the Molesworth stories are funny because the deliberate spelling and grammatical errors are recognised. But all of this may simply be the perennial complaint of an older generation with regard to a younger one. Yet declining education standards, especially in state schools, was a theme used by C.S. Lewis in ‘Screwtape Proposes a Toast’. This was first published in 1961. Sufficient time for the educational academics to devise the educational albatross that we now live with. What Lewis wrote in 1961 was not apocryphal it was apocalyptic.

Author: Peter

Web researcher

11 thoughts on “Er – like, you know, they’re only words.”

  1. Enjoyed that. Particularly “please do hesitate to contact me.” 🙂

    Words are *everything*. Powerful, influential, emotional, essential.

    I’m all in favour of encouraging children to experience and make full use of the English language past and present. I’m not against slang or swearing as an adjunct to the language – they have their place – but they definitely shouldn’t comprise the sum total of one’s vocabulary, as ane fule no.

  2. Thanks jahn – sorry I obviously didn’t get to edit it soon enough so your comment will be lost to others (but thanks). I thought that it was too long in its original form.
    PS ‘ane fule no’!

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this – although my teeth went on edge at the quote from the woman on TV! I do wish TV wouldn’t insist on interviews from Joe-Blog-Public, young children or mumbling, grunting sports people. They are painful to listen to…

    I hadn’t read the Lewis quote before – interesting and prophetic.

    I don’t know where we go from here – unless it be to start insisting on higher standards. It’s sad because most of those leaving school believe that they can write well. My mother, who was ejected from school on her fourteenth birthday, told me that she had read an essay by one of our sixteen year old relatives. Her comment was that had she produced such a shoddy, badly-spelt, grammatically incorrect bit of work at nine it would have been returned in pieces – she certainly would not have got an A+ for it.

    Editorial note. I put in a “more” tag for you. You will find the icon in the editor. We usually leave a paragraph or two on the front page. If you use it you won’t feel you have to cut your offerings short!

  4. The late Lord Denning, Master of The Rolls, was outstanding in his use of simple English in his judgements. in 1980, I was asked to provide an opinion, as part of my MBA degree, on the Arbitration decision made by him between the Colonial Sugar Refinery Corporation of Fiji and their workers in 1969. I was to assess his reasoning. I took the step of looking him up in Who’s Who; I phoned his home number over the weekend. His wife told me he was having his lunch, but if I gave her my number he would phone me back. Bear in mind we are talking about the second most senior judge in England at the time. Duly the telephone rang.I explained what I was doing as a Case Study,and where, and expressed an interest in understanding his reasoning for the judgement he had given. He asked me what I thought was his reasoning. I went through my theory. He told me I was on the right track,and began to discuss the case in detail with me – which had taken place eleven years earlier! Eventually he asked for my address. Two days later, a signed copy of his full judgement arrived through the post, with his compliments, and a request that I forward to him a copy of my Case Study when I had completed it. I have never read anything in such simple English. The sentences were short. They were to the point. They were crystal clear. Noone could have been in any doubt why he reached the judgement he did. In due course I submitted my Case Study. The American Law professor marking it, gave it an “A” and commented that it was almost as if I had been able to enter the brain of Lord Denning. I confessed I had phoned him. He was staggered that a mature student would be able to have a discussion over the weekend with such a senior member of the English Judiciary. He said I deserved an “A” for my initiative. Lord Denning was kind enough to reply on receiving the copy of my paper, writing on it, “An absolutely first class piece of work, Denning” You can imagine that both his Judgement and his response remain treasured documents.
    His writing should be mandatory reading in schools and in the Civil Service to teach these manglers of English that you do not need long sentences to make yourself understood clearly.

  5. PB, a really enjoyabl blog and good to see the beanbean reference in the ‘Molesworth’ link therein.

    Thanks for all the links you provide in your blogs. They always take me off to interesting places but it can be time consuming. I promise that I will take my usual effort to follow them all in due course.

    But, just this once, forgive me for moving on immediately to cwj’s comment.

    Total respect and lucky man, cwj. You have corresponded with one of my heroes. Lord Denning was a superb judge and his judgments were models of lucidity and simple English. Even if many of them were reversed on appeal, he usually ended up winning when Parliament changed the law to accord with his view. Truly the people’s judge, in my opinion.

    Tried to you tube him tonight to recapture his Hampshire burr but there does not seem to be anything out there.

  6. CWJ that is astonishing. We’ve got books here by Lord Denning. I can’t better Mr Mackie’s comments about “the people’s judge.”

    I always think that people who make things unnecessarily complicated are either fudging it, trying to impress or don’t understand the issues very well. To be lucid, accurate and concise about complex cases shows the sharper brain.

  7. I imagine that his books are written as concisely as his judgements.
    He may have had a record number of his judgements overturned, because they were made on the basis of common sense, but frequently Paliament changed the law at a later stage to more closely resemble to grounds on which he had made the judgements in the first place. In the Sugar Refinery case, it was clear to anyone but the company themselves that they were exploiting the sugarcane workers mercilessly, and he judged in the workers’ favour. The company eventually sold out to the Fijian government rather than meet the workers’ demands, from memory.

  8. This critique on his book, “Landmarks in the Law” gives you an idsea how he wrote!
    QUOTE:Lord Denning’s prose is famously idiosyncratic. The sentences are short. Often without verbs. It is infectious. Hemingway’s sentences are baroque by comparison. This means that he achieves great clarity; but once in a while a change of tempo would be restful; a longer sentence that meanders slowly – with Gibbonesque intermediate or subordinate clauses and phrases – towards a peaceful close, and then, just when you think it is over, carries on, the end only eventually, after many commas, being reached, would provide a useful pause.UNQUOTE

  9. Hiya PB – I enjoyed reading your post and am in total sympathy with your stance. Having been sent to (a very minor) public school and having taken Latin, Greek and Ancient History at ‘A’ level the best part of forty years ago, I even attempt grammatically correct and punctuated ‘txt msgs’. There was an unfortunate scene recently involving much snarling and flying fur when the NSW departed from her own normally impeccable standards and sent a message, ‘cu 2nite dont b l8’. I am pleased to say she is now back on the straight and narrow, albeit somewhat ruffled.

    I also have a certain affinity with the Molesworth stories. I suspect you needed to have been there to appreciate the subtlety of the books – all of which are on my shelves – and the illustrations, but I fear that the day may soon come, if it has not already, when nobody apreciates them any more.

    CWJ – Lucky you! Lord Denning is one of my all-time legal heroes. I am delighted to have an original Matt cartoon on the wall and would be equally proud to have something from Alf too.


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